Jonathan Walters’s second-half penalty dealt a huge blow to Arsenal’s Premier League title hopes as Stoke City defeated the Gunners 1-0 at the Britannia Stadium.
Arsenal were labored and predictable against a Stoke side that packed the midfield and contained them well. The crucial moment came as the match entered the final 15 minutes. Laurent Koscielny was penalized as the ball hit his arm inside the box as he contested it with Walters. It was certainly a disputable decision from referee Mike Jones. He will argue that Koscielny’s arm, which was outstretched, was in a natural position, yet the French defender had no time whatsoever to react after missing his attempted clearance.
Still, Arsenal certainly didn’t do enough to win the match at a venue where they have now recorded just two victories in six visits. The result leaves Arsenal four points behind Chelsea at the top of the Premier League, ahead of their toughest series of fixtures in the coming weeks.
The physical nature of Stoke’s play that has given Arsenal such problems over the years remains, yet under Mark Hughes they have put a clear focus on attaining more possession. And that was evident in the opening half when Stoke saw more of their ball than the visitors.
That owed much to Hughes reinforcing his midfield with Steven N’Zonzi coming in and helping to form what was a line of five when Arsenal had the ball. Stoke had particular success when harrying Arsenal whenever they came into the home side’s half of the pitch. Certainly, Arsenal did little to help themselves with uncharacteristically sloppy passing. Much of the sterile possession that they showcased, though, has become a worrying trend in recent weeks.
The opening half was an instantly forgettable affair, with the only brief moments of excitement arriving in the final minutes. In quick succession, a nice Stoke move ended with Glenn Whelan fizzing a shot that Wojciech Szczesny had to parry to safety before Santi Cazorla ignored a better-placed Lukas Podolski outside him and hit a shot that Asmir Begovic did well to hold.
There was little alteration after the break. Arsenal’s afternoon was summed up when Jack Wilshere led a promising move and had players either side of him on the edge of the box, but struck a woeful pass to bring the attack to an end.
Stoke, meanwhile, were starting to cause more problems with crosses into the box. Marko Arnautovic again provided a touch of quality and it was his ball which Peter Crouch got a deft header to force Szczesny to leap and turn wide. An even better chance came from the resulting corner when Bacary Sagna failed to clear and Geoff Cameron ran onto the loose ball but hammered a shot wide.
Then came the award of the penalty that proved decisive. Walters, who has been less than prolific from the spot in the past, this time showed the utmost composure as he sent Szczesny the wrong way and rolled the ball to the keeper’s left.
Arsenal finally got some momentum going thanks to the arrival of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain off the bench. Many fans will surely be wondering why the midfielder, recalled the England squad this week, was not called upon earlier. His injection of pace down the right created two chances in the closing minutes, but first Giroud and then, spectacularly, substitute Yaya Sanogo failed to provide the required finish.